The Real Presence
About twenty-five years ago, I had a read a book of tales about Saint Brendan the Navigator and some other legendary sailor-monks of early Medieval Ireland. I was fascinated by one story about a monk who lived in a cave on an island in the North Atlantic. Alone, he spent all of his time in prayer. Whenever he needed it, an angel appeared in his cave and provided him with bread. I had a very vivid image of a thin and rugged looking monk with pale Irish skin and long white beard and hair.
Some years later I took a vacation trip to Ireland, by myself. I had no special plans; I simply bought a round-trip ticket on Aer Lingus. I figured I’d rent a car at Shannon Airport, drive around the country, and stay at Bed and Breakfast places. One day, I found myself in a small city called Tralee. I had heard of the name Tralee from Irish-Americans of my parent’s generation who sometimes referred to a song called, "The Rose of Tralee." And if a guy had a very pretty Irish girlfriend, they might refer to her as a, "Rose of Tralee." But only when I got there did I know that Tralee was the name of a town in Ireland.
In Ireland, there were hitchhikers everywhere, but the roads going into Tralee had an unusual number. In the town center was a large park where hordes of unwashed and hung-over teenagers from all over Ireland had been camping out and making use of the public rest rooms next to it. There were people everywhere and wandering in all directions. The town seemed to be wallpapered and carpeted in placards, handbills and litter. I remember a man who popped out of bar and shouted down the street, "Hey, Americans! Get your beer here!" The city was packed and partying. I learned that I had arrived during the annual, Rose of Tralee Festival, which was a beauty pageant. People I met thought that I should be so fortunate to be in Tralee during the festival.
Being a Catholic, one of the things I wanted to do was to experience what church was like in Ireland, and while wandering in the city of Tralee, I came upon a church. From what was going on all around me, I felt inundated with commercial tackiness. I felt no sense of the sacred or transcendental. Never the less, since the church was right there, I decided to go in. The church was full, and mass was going on, so I stood in the back and watched. The priest was at the point in the Mass where he was beginning the consecration. I can’t quite express what I saw, but I was struck by the ecstatic and profound reverence and adoration that the priest expressed in the prayers of consecration, his body language, and the expression on his face and in his eyes. He was venerating the real body and blood of Christ. Then, I realized that the priest was the identical image that I had had of the hermit in the North Atlantic. Here was the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, the Holy Spirit, and a saint to boot, smack dab in the middle of garbage strewn, drunken, piss-smelling Tralee.
Let me explain something for non-Catholic readers. Protestant church services are Word focused, but in the Catholic (includes Orthodox) faith, although the Word is present also, the Mass is Sacrament focused. Not only that but we believe that the bread and wine are changed into the real body and blood of Christ in the consecration.
I remember seeing such impressive awe and reverence once since them. A few years ago, while visiting my parents on the weekend, I went to Mass in my old home parish. There were no seats available in the church, so rather than stand, I went to the auditorium where the children’s (or "family") Mass was being held. Because it is a Children’s Mass in an auditorium, the atmosphere isn’t the same as in the church. For one, it looks like an auditorium. The altar is a portable one. You sit on metal chairs rather than pews. You hear chairs pushing and banging, especially kneelers hitting the hard gym floor. Children talk and occasionally yell. Babies cry.
As in the case of Tralee, this was not a time and place where I expected profound things. The priest who said the Mass was someone I had never seen before, a Carmelite, and a Hispanic I think. However, when he prayed the consecration, he addressed the Eucharist as if Jesus was truly present in person, and I was entirely moved. He addressed the Eucharist as, "You," and it was personal, very deeply personal. And during the consecration, at least twice, spontaneously, he broke into singing the refrain, "O, Come Let us adore Him."
This may read like dull stuff, but I will never forget these incidents; they have affected me deeply. They are a reminder of the Real Presence and serve as a model of reverence for the rest of us. When certain lines from certain Christmas hymns are sung, especially lines from songs like, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," and, of course, "O Come All Ye Faithful," I become so filled with emotion that I cannot sing or even speak. I simply cannot get any words out of my mouth. Often, the same thing happens when I am receiving Communion. After the priest or Eucharistic minister says. "The Body of Christ," I am unable to say Amen. I am literally speechless.